The widow of the Shoney’s founder recalls the rise of the food empire in the Mountain State.
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Slide into a red, vinyl booth and peruse the menu of country cooking, even though there’s a good chance you’ll choose the All-You-Can-Eat special or take your place in line at the beloved buffet. For more than 60 years, Shoney’s has been a staple of home-style dining in West Virginia. The famous breakfast buffet, the All-American burger, the iconic Big Boy, and the Shoney Bear have all earned spots as fixtures in our dining culture, and it all began in Charleston.
The first restaurant named Shoney’s opened in Charleston in 1953 as a franchise of Big Boy hamburgers. The story goes that owner Alex Schoenbaum held a contest among his employees to decide on a new restaurant name, and Shoney’s won. Alex, who passed away in 1996, got his start in the restaurant business in 1947 when he opened the forerunner to Shoney’s—Parkette—beside his family’s bowling alley in Charleston. A half a century later, Shoney’s had spread to 34 states with 1,400 locations, plus 400 Captain D’s seafood restaurants. Fifth Quarter and Pargo’s were also part of the company, as were a chain of motels called Shoney’s Inn.
Alex’s widow, Betty Schoenbaum, can remember when a meal at Shoney’s cost less than a dollar. In 1947, not long after the couple moved to Charleston, Alex opened the drive-in restaurant, Parkette. “The first building cost $2,500,” Betty says. “My husband told his father, ‘You do $100,000 a year business there.’ Now that’s when hamburgers were a quarter. In fact you could get a hamburger, French fries, and a piece of strawberry pie for 50 cents.”
Prior to Parkette, Alex’s family had been in the bowling business. During the Second World War, his three brothers went into the service. “His father became ill and his mother was left home by herself, so Alex had to run the bowling alleys.” But Alex wasn’t content to stay in the bowling business, and so he turned to the world of food. At Parkette, Alex started calling his hamburger the Big Boy—his nickname. “He was sort of a macho man,” Betty says. “All-American football player, size 20 neck, size 14EE shoes, hands he couldn’t find gloves for, and a head he couldn’t find a hat for. But he wasn’t tall.” The Big Boy burger was the restaurant’s signature item, but Alex didn’t have the trademark. Someone beat him to it.
“My husband got a letter in 1950 telling him he couldn’t use the name Big Boy—that it had been registered by a man in California called Bob’s Big Boy,” Betty says. By the time Alex got the letter, he already had an early franchise agreement with the owner of Frisch’s restaurants in Cincinnati. Alex and Dave Frisch met through the Ohio Restaurant Association and Frisch liked the name Big Boy so well he asked if he could use it. Then they found out about the existing trademark. “So my husband and Dave Frisch met the other man at a National Restaurant Association meeting in Chicago and asked him if he’d be interested in franchising,” Betty says. That became the arrangement—Shoney’s would be a chain of Big Boy franchises. Other Big Boy franchises have different names across the country—Eat’n Park , Elby’s, Marc’s, and Manners, to name a few. Shoney’s was one of the biggest franchises, with a territory covering much of the southeastern United States. In fact, the chain outgrew the constraints of its franchise agreement.